Recently, Michael Eisenson ’77 published an op-ed in the Record thanking those in the College community who have pushed the institution on climate change (“Green financing: The College’s investment in reversing climate change,” Oct. 5, 2016). He wrote that, after pressure from students and alumni, the board contacted its fund managers asking them to consider the impact of our investments on greenhouse gas emissions. Eisenson also recounted the College’s recent actions to address climate change, among them the addition of Mark Tercek ’79, former investment banker and CEO of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) since 2008, to the Board of Trustees.
I understand that the board is trying to highlight its commitment to acting on climate change, but it really missed the mark with Tercek. TNC is a failure when it comes to addressing climate change and environmental justice. It has earned millions of dollars over the years from gas and oil production on its properties. The organization infamously allowed the establishment of a drilling project on Texas land that had been set aside for the protection of the Attwater’s prairie chicken, an endangered species of stunning brown speckled birds with orange throat sacs that has since disappeared from the site. The group has accepted over $10 million donations from BP in land contributions and cash, and has given the oil company a seat on its Business Council. A top lobbyist for Koch Industries is a trustee of TNC.
Tercek led TNC in the establishment of a partnership with Dow Chemical Company last year. Dow is notorious for producing the 20 million gallons that were sprayed in Vietnam, as well as for acquiring the company responsible for a chemical leak in Bhopal that killed thousands and refusing to pay restitution or clean up the site of the plant, which still leaks toxins into the local water system.
Tercek’s approach to confronting climate change is to partner with the most culpable agents of environmental destruction. He may be able to help Dow slightly reduce its environmental impacts, as long as it increases profits, but he won’t convince the company to stop creating toxic chemicals that will harm the most marginalized people. People of color and the poor are the ones who face exposure to the most toxic chemicals due to proximity to industrial facilities. Tercek’s “win-win” strategy of helping businesses cut costs while slightly reducing emissions does not address the disproportionate harms caused by environmental injustice.
In 2010, Tercek was appointed to the National Petroleum Council, a federal advisory committee that more or less acts as a lobbying group for big oil. Comprised of top executives from BP, Exxon and Shell, it collects a $4.5 million budget from its members each year and “makes recommendations” to the U.S. Secretary of Energy — including a 2015 report on the promise and opportunity of Arctic drilling. Tercek also directs Resources for the Future, an energy think tank that accepts funding from ExxonMobil, Chevron, PG&E Corp, Duke Energy and Shell. Tercek and TNC deal in slightly-less-bad alternatives that masquerade as real solutions, and in partnerships with corporations that depend on the continued destruction of our planet. Tercek believes in a kind of environmentalism that protects the interests of the very rich and ignores the disproportionate harm to the poor. Tercek is not the only board member with close ties to fossil fuels — this summer, Andreas Halvorsen ’86 doubled his stake in one of the largest natural gas companies in the United States.
The Board of Trustees is starting to think about our institution’s impact on the climate and about how to invest money differently — this is a good step. Yet the board’s fundamental logic still ignores the inherent conflict between making money and making change, and between social transformation and the profiteering of wealthy bankers and companies. It mistakes capitalism for democracy and market signals for true indicators of social good.
Let’s be real: powerful players on the Board of Trustees repeatedly reject divestment not because it’s improbable or naive, but because its very logic threatens their own elite status. This is the central logic of divestment, that we cannot ever separate economic activity from ethics, or from social and environmental costs. We cannot, in good conscience, turn a profit in fossil fuels, weapon manufacturing and the slave labor of people in private prisons and then turn around and talk about our leadership in climate change and our moral values.
TNC will never align with the environmental justice movement because its leadership represents the interests of fossil fuel companies, chemical companies and investment bankers. Likewise, the College will not be able to step up as a true leader on climate change until it cuts its own ties to the most destructive forces on the planet.
Sarah Vukelich ’16 was a political science major. She lives in Montreal.